Distilling the Essence of a Story

I have an interview on BlogTalkRadio on Saturday, September 5 at 11:30am ET. We’re going to be talking about back story — where I got the ideas for A Spark of Heavenly Fire and More Deaths Than One. Although one of the hosts of the show has read at least one of my books, I’m sure at some point he will ask me, “What are your books about?” And I will give the same answer I give to everyone who asks. A blank stare. Though, being radio, it will come across as blank silence.

How does one encapsulate a three-hundred-page novel with subplots and subtexts, themes and scenes, complexities and ironies into a minute of description? This distillation is commonly called an elevator speech, and after five months of being published, I still haven’t figured mine out.

I can talk around the story — More Deaths Than One is a thriller/mystery/suspense novel that explores what it is that makes us who we are. Is it our memories? Our experiences? Our natures? A Spark of Heavenly Fire is a thriller/suspense novel with a strong romantic element. It tells the story of ordinary people who become extraordinary because of the trauma they must endure. — But neither of those descriptions gives an idea of what the stories are about.

I can relate a bit of the story — More Deaths Than One tells the story of Bob Stark who sees his mother’s obituary in the morning paper, which stuns him because he buried her two decades ago before he the country to live in Southeast Asia. So how can she be dead again? A Spark of Heavenly Fire tells the story of how Kate Cummings, an ordinary woman, gathered her courage and strength to survive the horror of a bioengineered disease let loose on the state of Colorado.

The problem I’m finding is that I don’t know the essence of either story, the emotional triggers. What do the books do for readers? Why should people read them? Perhaps the books will bring romance and adventure to readers’ lives. By showing ordinary people rising to horrific occasions, perhaps readers will feel better about themselves, knowing they too have the potential for heroism. And, in the case of A Spark of Heavenly Fire, people will know what to expect if ever the Swine Flu or any other virulent disease spreads so rapidly that an entire state needs to be quarantined in an effort to curtail the deaths.

So, how do you distill the essence of your book (or any book!) into a few words and make a reader desperate to read it?

More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire are available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.
You can also download the first 30% free at Smashwords.

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8 Responses to “Distilling the Essence of a Story”

  1. knightofswords Says:

    I don’t like being asked what my work is about; and it really bugs me that this very question is expected to be answered in query letters to prospective publishers. It’s almost as bad as being asked to tell somebody what a friend is like. Whatever you say first, gets stuck in the listener’s mind as the most important attribute even though just came to mind first. Fortunately, the interviewer won’t expect or want a perfectly prepared 100 word statement. “Well, Zeke,” you might say, “people all over town start throwing up blood and that turns out now only to be a disgusting thing to see but a fatal thing for them to do.”

    Good luck and have fun.


  2. Sia McKye Says:

    Tag lines don’t actually tell what the story is about only hints at the story. Actually what you did here for your blog on both stories works for a blog radio spot. You don’t want to tell the whole story or why go buy it?

  3. joylene Says:

    I practiced writing my blurb, then memorized it until it sounded natural and free flowing.

    Today when someone says, “Joylene, what’s your story about?” I smile confidently (haha) and reply, “When Canadian Valerie McCormick witnesses the execution of two FBI agents, the FBI kidnap her so she’ll survive to testify. But now her three daughters think she’s dead. And the FBI’s plan is failing and the druglord is threatened her children. That’s enough to set Valerie on a journey to recapture her life, save her children, and defy the men trying to control her life.”

    I made that up just this minute. Which goes to show that rewriting has merits!

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